The question has often been asked: does Islam give women rights or take them away? Surely, the concept of justice and equality for all are repeatedly mentioned in the Holy Quran and are fundamental to the spirit of Islam, with rights for women being an important component. Both the right to divorce and the right to an inheritance, for instance, were revolutionary when Islam bestowed these rights upon women and were not introduced in other parts of the world till much later.
The trouble is, however, that those who most often speak in the name of Islam, frequently contemplate how to take rights away from women rather than elevate their position in society. In addition, while Islam accorded rights to women they did not previously have, the world has progressed in leaps and bounds in the last 1,400 years and unless the Islamic world can reform its laws and practices so that they are in conformity with modernity, it will be difficult to compete with the non-Muslim world or lay claim to the oft-repeated mantra that Islam confers many rights upon women.
In this context, let’s examine the recent recommendations of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII). The CII has proposed that there should be no minimum age for marriage as that would be ‘un-Islamic’. The CII’s rationale is rooted in the example of Hazrat Ayesha, the Holy Prophet’s (peace be upon him) youngest wife, who is said to have been betrothed to him at the age of seven, nine, 11 or 15, depending on which scholar/historian one chooses to believe as there is no official and uncontroversial record of her age at the time. Her marriage to the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) was not consummated until a few years later by which time, she had, at least, attained puberty and according to at least one scholar, was as old as 18.
Nevertheless, the point is that for much of history, the age of marriage was a matter for families or tribes to decide. In recent years, however, state intervention and legislation on this subject has become commonplace.
According to the Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society, for instance, in 1564, a three-year-old named John was married to a two-year-old named Jane in the Bishop’s Court in Chester, England. Often such underage unions took place when either property or family alliances were at stake. In the Unites States, moreover, Mary Hathaway was only nine when she married William Williams in the state of Virginia in 1689.
But by the 1920s, most countries in Europe and America had legislated a minimum age for marriage to be set at or about 16. The Age of Marriage Act, which applies to Scotland, England and Wales, was enacted as law in 1929 and in the same year, the Child Marriage Restraint Act was promulgated in India.
Mohammed Ali Jinnah had voiced unequivocal support for this law. How tragic is it then that a simple matter that should have been settled by the definitive position of the founder of our nation nearly a century ago is being debated afresh today in the age of smart phones and satellite television — modern goodies of which the clerics do not hesitate to take part, but when it comes to women, they must remain stuck in the Middle Ages.
The CII has also proposed that any restrictions on the practice of polygamy currently in place under Pakistani law must be struck down. According to the CII, polygamy is a man’s unfettered right and thus any restriction on it is ‘un-Islamic’. In fact, the practice of polygamy was not sanctioned by Islam, but predated Islam. Islam resignedly tolerates polygamy but expresses a clear preference for monogamy with the Holy Quran clearly stating: “It is better for you to have one wife.”
In accordance with this principle, many Muslim countries, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Bangladesh among them, have sought to curb the practice of polygamy by requiring a man to seek permission from his first wife before marrying a second time. Tunisia and Turkey, moreover, have outlawed polygamy altogether, in 1956 and 1926 respectively. It goes without saying that polygamy is also not permissible in the developed world.
The choice before us is, therefore, very clear. Are we going to be an example of how Islam is compatible with modernity and able to give its women, at least, the same rights as is the case in many non-Muslim societies, or are we going to reinforce the stereotype that Muslims are a backward bunch, who do not respect their women and cannot contribute positively to the modern global world?
In conclusion, though I have tried to watch Pakistani talk shows on this subject with great interest, I have found them largely disappointing due to the enormous amount of time wasted on deciphering what exactly Islam mandates on these matters. Given the polarisation between the traditional and the modernist approach to religion, it is not possible to find common ground. It may be wiser thus to discuss how to limit the power of those who promote backward and discriminatory interpretations of religion.
In the substantial number of years I spent in the US and the UK, both highly developed societies, I repeatedly heard of Judeo-Christian values inspiring law and society, but hardly ever witnessed religious representatives invited on television or otherwise to comment on either. Perhaps, it may be wise to follow the same approach.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 19th, 2014.